Yasodharā, the Wife of the Bōdhisattva: The Sinhala Yasodharavata (The Story of Yasodhara) and the Sinhala Yasodharapadanaya (The Sacred Biography of
I approached Ranjini Obeyesekere’s book with slight trepidation: though the subject of Buddhism has always interested me, I was worried about my ability to write about a religion with such a long detailed history that I had only a surface knowledge of. I was well aware from the start that my Christian background would affect my interpretation of this text, and in the end this book did leave me questioning every rose-coloured, perhaps orientalist view I had of Buddhism.
As I suspected, Yasodharā, the Wife of the Bōdhisattva, is not a light read. This book will be really popular with those already familiar with SUNY Press’ challenging and progressive publications, but will probably never touch the trade market. The writing style is heavy on facts and descriptions, and less so on interpretation and theorization. The reader doesn’t get much of a sense of Obeyesekere’s thesis, which is unfortunate as she is such an experienced scholar. But perhaps this was done on purpose, as the book leaves the reader with no choice but to form their own interpretation; and with the fantastical, bizarre story presented in her translations, it is almost impossible not to.
Women in most major religions are delegated to a life of suffering, whether as punishment or reward. Yasodharā’s life is no exception. Born into a rich class, she was married to Siddhartha when she was 16 years old. They were happy until Siddhartha decided to pursue a holy life, two days after the birth of their only child. Yasodharā then lives out her life in pious denial, eventually becoming a nun with superpowers, which would be cool if she allowed to use them. Her story so far was basically what I was expected, similar to the role of the Virgin Mother in Christianity: a life lived in perfect accordance to the rules that is rewarded with silent suffering.
What I was not prepared for was the violence Yasodharā was subjected to. She and Buddha spend countless lives together as partners, and throughout these lives Buddha allowed her to be eaten by animals, gave away her children, sold her, lost her in a bet, and abandoned her in the middle of the night after she gave birth to their child. What is most disturbing is that Buddha’s actions were considered progression through samsara (the human condition) and necessary to achievement enlightenment. As Yasodharā is considered Buddha’s property, giving her away or letting her be taken was an act of charity. The fact that Yasodharā puts up with this abuse in each life proves she is an ideal wife and will eventually reach nirvana.
Obeyesekere’s text is straight-forward historical reference; however, I found myself often making connections between Yasodharā’s story and the way our culture still perceives violence against women. Viewed from a feminist perspective, a reader of Yasodharā’s story can’t help but wonder if she should have been the Buddha. While Siddhartha may have lived an ascetic life of charity and poverty, his horrific treatment of his wife and children suggests he is far from obtaining enlightenment. Yasodharā, on the other hand, did nothing but sacrifice herself for the betterment of another person and follow the rules of being a perfect Buddhist woman. It is not only Yasodharā who has met this fate—as much as we hate to admit it, men we as a culture admire, like Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi, were no saints when it came to their treatment of women.
This book is a challenging and eye-opening read, and the retelling and sharing of Yasodharā’s story is the most fundamental type of feminist act.